Imagens da página
PDF
ePub

poet's feelings, a dim and shadowy History seems to rise and disclose itself before us: an intimation not to be neglected; seeing that such a man, however entangled amongst the conceits and fancies of his age, would hardly, in his own person, have wasted such sad and passionate verses on any subject that had no foundation in truth.

On quitting London, Shakspere retired to his native town of Stratford. He had previously purchased one of the best houses there, called “New Place,” and in this house he lived and died. He was buried on the 25th of April, 1616, on the north side of the chancel of the great church of Stratford. A monument was shortly afterwards-certainly before the year 1623—erected to his memory. The artist has represented him in a sitting posture, with a pen in his right hand, and his left resting on a scroll of paper; and on the cushion which appears spread out before him, are eng

lines :

ved the

“Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem,
Terra tegit, populus mæret, Olympus habet."

Not much can be said of this monument as a work of art: it poor enough. And yet to this tomb, and to the house wherein he (is supposed to have) lived and died, how many thousand pilgrims have since come! Here, people of all ages and all nations have repaired, for upwards of two hundred years. Walls covered with inscriptions (each man eager to write down his admiration) attest the worth and influence of a great poet. It would have been creditable to this country, or to its government, if some fit memorial, in bronze or marble, had been built up in his honour. For, althoughi (as Milton sings)

* What, needs my Shakspere for his honoured bones,
The labour of an age in piléd stones?
Or that his hallowed reliques should be hid
Under a star-y pointing pyramid ?"

yet that does not exonerate us from paying the tribute due to his memory; however it may account for the abundance of statues which we have erected, in the vain hope of immortalising people who have shed neither glory nor light of any sort upon the English nation.

$ 6.

As part of the biography of Shakspere, it would have been very desirable to have ascertained the order in which his plays were written. It would have exhibited the gradations, and, perhaps, fluctuations, of his intellect, and have cast light on many questions of great interest relating to the works themselves; but, unfortunately, this must still remain doubtful. The subject has been frequently discussed; and trifling facts have from time to time arisen, proving that certain plays had been actually performed when, as was once supposed, they existed only in the imagination of the author. But nothing like satisfactory evidence has been produced to shew at what precise time any one play was written. We know that some plays were printed, and that others were represented, in certain years. But we do not know how long before those years these dramas were actually composed, nor whether other plays, which were made public at a later date, were not then in existence.

For my own part, I think that, in determining the chronology as well as the authienticity of Shakspere's plays, there is, after all, no evidence like the internal evidence; no proof like the plays themselves. Other proofs may be, and bave, in similar cases,

[ocr errors]

repeatedly been found fallacious. But there is no retrograding in point of style; no going back from the style of vigorous manhood, or even the neatness and fastidiousness of later life, to the loose, unsettled character which invariably betrays the youthful writer. A date may be incorrectly given; a report may be without foundation; a second edition may be mistaken for a first; and the work which is published to-day, may, in manuscript, have many predecessors. In Shakspere's case, the doubts are so strong and numerous, that we are thrown back altogether upon conjecture. Had the great author, indeed, left anything which could have enabled us to unravel the mystery, the question might have assumed another aspect; but, in the absence of all information from himself, we cannot do better, as I have said, than consult his works.

The principal point of interest is as to those plays with which he commenced his labours; for we have his own acknowledgment, that “the first fruit of his invention " was the poem of “VENUS AND Adonis.” If it could be satisfactorily ascertained that "Titus ANDRONICUS" and the First Part of “Henry The Sixth" were written by him, I should be disposed to place them at the commencement of the list. But I doubt their authenticity; and I altogether disbelieve all reports and dissent from all opinions which aim at fathering upon him “Sir John OlDCASTLE,” “Thomas, Lord Cromwell,” and “The Yorkshire Tragedy.” They are decidedly spurious: and the circumstance of Schlegel having pronounced his deliberate conviction that those wretched performances “unquestionably" belonged to Shakspere, -nay, that they "are amongst his best and maturest works,"—is almost enough to beget a doubt as to the originality of some of his own critical opinions.

“Titus Andronicus,” the First Part of “Henry The Sixth,” and “Pericles,” are said to contain passages which shew, beyond all question, that Shakspere was their author. But short passages, having the stamp of Shakspere, prove no more than that he occasionally retouched and invigorated the dramas that came before him; a circumstance which is by no means improbable. In respect to “ Pericles," I think, from a careful reading of the play, that the three last acts were undoubtedly written by Shakspere. No other man could write in the same style, or in a style so good. The two first acts are, indeed, very unlike his composition; and there is something in the early part of the plot that, I suspect, never originated in his invention. " Titus ANDRONICUS" and the First Part of “ HENRY THE Sixth,” are in a different predicament. the more material qualities of a play,—in character, in plot, in spirited intelligent dialogue,-these two dramas are deficient. Talbot (in the latter play) is a bold sketch, and the scene between him and the Countess of Auvergne, is striking and dramatic; but, in the main, the dramatis personæ differ but little from each other, whilst the level style of the verse, and the brutal treatment of the Maid of Orleans at the close, betray, as it seems to me, the hand of an inferior dramatist. However Shakspere may have yielded to the national prejudices of his age, he was too noble and humane to have attempted to justify upon the stage that most atrocious tragedy, in which the English barbarians of the time consummated their renown, by burning to death an enemy who at once woman and their prisoner. Amongst the ineradicable stains upon the arms of England (small and few in number, I trust), this diabolical act of the murder of the Maid of Orleans stands out blackest and unparalleled.

In regard to “Titus Andronicus," it has always appeared to me to have issued from the same mint, and to bear the same stamp as “Lust's Dominion,” which is known to have been produced by Marlowe. With the exception of one beautiful passage, there is the same style of verse (totally unlike that adopted in Shakspere's

In

was

a

IX

known plays), the same exaggeration and confusion of character, the same mock (with occasional real) sublimity, which the tragedies of Marlowe present; and, above all, the same villanous ferocity and bloodthirstiness which Marlowe delighted to indulge in, and which Shakspere's far-sighted genius altogether disdained. Marlowe (although he has fine and even grand bursts of poetry) stands forth, the historian of lust and villany, and the demonstrator of physical power; whilst Shakspere is ever the champion of humanity and intellect.

If the two last mentioned plays may, contrary to my expectation, claim Shakspere for their author, then I think that they must have been the earliest of his dramatic productions ; and, in all probability, the Second and Third Parts of “HENRY THE Sixth” speedily followed; for the style throughout is like that of Marlowe, although those “parts” present more subtle and numerous distinctions of character than that dramatist has ever drawn.

About this time Shakspere must have begun to assume an independent style in his plays ; and now, I imagine, he composed the “Two Gentlemen op Verona." This play has, in all respects, a youthful character, and it is undoubtedly his. Almost all the similes and sentiments have reference to love, without the intermixture of weightier matter. The metre is wanting in pliancy and sinew; but the occasional sententious lines, the play upon words, the style and quality of the comedy, with its jokes dovetailed and full of retorts, all point him out as the author. It is a slight play compared with many others of later date; but there is a passion and freshness in it, as though it had been breathed forth in that time of year when April

“Had put a spirit of youth in everything."

Perhaps "Love's Labour's Lost" may be placed next. It is a decided advance in power, in style, and even in dramatic skill.

With the exception of Launce (in whom the germ of much that afterwards blossomed out is obvious), and, perhaps, of Julia, there is little of character in the “Two GentLEMEN OF VERONA." But Biron and Rosaline, Boyet, Armado and his page, Moth ("that handful of wit"), Holofernes, and Costard, are all clear outlines, although all of them may not be very strong. And some of the poetry in this play is, as mere poetry, equal to that of Shakspere's maturer time. The aphorism

A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it,"

[ocr errors]

is profound and Shaksperian. The play itself looks as though it rested on some event in the history of Provence, in times when the Troubadours figured in the solemn masquerades of Love. The two principal characters, Biron and Rosaline, were afterwards recast by Shakspere, with some alterations, and appear under the names of Benedick and Beatrice.

In what order the rest of the plays followed, at what period the greatest dramas were produced, and what was the final work of this unequalled poet, I will not pretend to guess. As a general principle, however, I would say, that the plays in which signs of imitation (particularly imitation of style) are manifest, should be accounted the earliest; and that those wherein the poetry is redundant and far exceeds the necessities and purposes of the story, should be held to have preceded, in point of time, the great and substantial dramas, in which the business of the play is skilfully wrought out, and where the poetry springs out of the passion or humour of the characters, and serves to illustrate and not to oppress them. In conformity with this view, I think that the “Winter's Tale," although perhaps not actually performed until the year 1611, can never have been the last work of Shakspere. It is far more like the labour of his youth. That the “ Tempest" should have been the last play is far less unlikely; and I would fain connect it, if possible, with his farewell to the stage, were it only for those beautiful and melancholy words of Prospero, with which he (another enchanter) abandons his “so potent art:"

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

PART 11.

§ 1.

WHATEVER doubts may exist concerning the parentage or education of Shakspere;concerning his residence, his mode of life, his progress from poverty to wealth; or concerning the order of his dramas, shewing thereby his ascension from the immaturity of boyhood, to that full perfection of mind which he afterwards attained; there can be none as to the quality of his intellect, nor, in my opinion, as to the vast benefits which he conferred upon the world.

Poetry, the material in which Shakspere dealt, has been treated often as a superfluity — as a thing unimportant to mankind, and as a luxury against which sumptuary laws might be fairly levelled. This is the opinion of men of literal understanding, who, seeing no merit in poetry because it differs from science, and overlooking its logic, which is involved instead of being demonstrated, pronounce at once against it.

It is more especially an opinion of the present age; an age in which the material world has been searched and ransacked to supply new powers and luxuries to man; and in which the moral world has been too much neglected.

We do not encourage the poet; but we encourage the chemist and the miner, the capitalist, the manufacturer. We encourage voyagers, who penetrate the forests of Mexico, the South Indian pampas, and the sterile tracts of Africa beyond the mountains of the moon. These people tell us of new objects of commerce; they bring us tidings of unknown lands. Yet, what a vast unexplored world lies about us! what a dominion, beyond the reach of any traveller--beyond the strength of the steam-engine-nay, even beyond the power of material light itself to penetrate-is there to be attained in that region of the brain! Much have the poets won, from time to time, out of that deep obscure. Homer has bequeathed to us his discoveries, and Dante also, and our greater Shakspere. They are the same now, as valuable now, as on the day whereon they were made. In our earth, all is for ever changing. One traveller visits a near or a distant country; he sees traces (temples or monuments) of human power; but unforeseen events, earthquake or tempest, obliterate them; or the people who dwelt near them migrate; the eternal forest grows round and hides them; or they are left to perish, for the sake of a new artist, whose labours are effaced in their turn. And so goes on the continual change, the continual decay. Governments and systems change; codes of law, theories

« AnteriorContinuar »